The Republicans have one man to blame for the predicament they find themselves in: Faust.
When the tea party movement was just emerging after the passage of the new health care law, it was more or less non-partisan. It had a "pox on both your houses" kind of independent streak to it. But Republican strategists quickly moved to co-opt it, and by eating it whole, they became it.
The idea was that they would ride a rising tide of anti-government sentiment to take control of the White House and U.S. Senate, and with this unhindered control of the national government.
The GOP may now have reason to ask itself whether making a deal with this particular devil was such a grand strategy.
Last week's flurry of polls in Wisconsin found President Obama with a widening lead over Mitt Romney, and, incredibly to many, showed Tommy Thompson behind Tammy Baldwin (in three out of four polls) in the race to replace the retiring Herb Kohl in the U.S. Senate.
To be sure, Romney has done everything he can to hurt his own chances, but what I find interesting is how both Romney and Thompson find themselves unable to so much as hint at their strongest assets. Both men were moderate and effective governors -- Republicans who were popular in states that leaned or were heavily Democratic. These were men who knew how to make the machinery of government work.
But the tea party dominance of the Republican nominating machinery has hurt both men in two ways. First, they were forced to pretend to be far more conservative and far more rigid than their histories suggest they really are. Both men looked uncomfortable in the new outfit and their struggle to make it fit showed. They were nominated by their party (in Thompson's case, just barely) but not embraced by the new tea party bosses. So they find themselves with an enthusiasm gap going into the general election.
Which leads to the second problem -- both Romney and Thompson are paying a very high price for the tepid support they receive from the tea party. That price is a loss of support among independents and even some Democrats. As recently as March, Thompson enjoyed a 30% approval rating even among Democrats and a commanding 60% approval rating with independents. Six months later those numbers have been cut in half.
My guess is that the presidential race will follow what has become a more or less familiar pattern. Obama will widen his lead through the first part of October, then things will tighten as voters take one more look at the alternative before giving the president another four years on Election Day.
The senate race is a little harder to predict. The most accurate of the four polls that came out last week put the Tammy-Tommy race at a dead heat. The Quinnipiac/New York Times/CBS poll, with the smallest margin of error, had both candidates at 47% with only six percent undecided. Still, those are surprisingly good numbers for Tammy at this point in the race. While she still has to be considered the underdog, she's an underdog with a fighting chance.
Tea party ideology eschews moderation, compromise and bipartisanship. Public policy craftsmen are disparaged, while rigid (and often just plain nutty) ideologues are venerated. Both Romney and Thompson have followed their party in making deals with the tea party devil. Romney will almost certainly pay the price and Tommy could follow him into political oblivion.
As Faust learned, that's how the story ends.